This Time It’s Personal: How to Convey Characters' Feelings

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August 24, 2023

Conveying emotions in your work can be difficult, but it’s an important part of the craft. Offering insight into your characters’ feelings helps your reader develop empathy for them. When a character experiences an event, you want your readers to feel something, too. How you choose to convey your characters' emotional responses can influence the way your readers feel about your characters and what happens to them. 

Show vs Tell

We do a disservice to writers when we tell them to show rather than tell. Not that showing is bad—not at all. After all, there’s something exciting about reading the details of someone’s gut wrench of fear, the weight of grief, the way relief can sometimes knock a person out at the knees.

But letting people into your characters’ feelings sometimes takes telling, and a lot of that telling comes in the form of your characters' thought narratives.

For example, if your character runs into their controlling ex-partner in a coffee shop, they might have a physical reaction. Perhaps they square their shoulders, back against the wall, duck their head to avoid eye contact. Those physical details can add to the richness of the scene. But the power of emotions comes in combining the physical with the mental.

Combining the Two:

Alice recognized him instantly, even from the back, twenty feet away. Three years of therapy to get over this man, and the sight of his back across a crowded coffee shop threatened to send her scurrying under a table for cover. She backed up, bumped into the person behind her and whispered an apology through her dry throat. Ben had devastated her, left her struggling to emerge from depression after they broke up. She hadn’t known how to live after a decade with someone who controlled her finances, her friends, and even the clothes she wore.

The character is having a physical reaction, yes. But the narrative is also telling the reader that Alice is terrified, worried that her years of healing haven’t prepared her for this moment. This blending of physical and mental helps convey the depth of the feeling far more than one would on its own.

Emotional Arcs

This approach works for both short scenes and longer novels, but when you’re writing a full-length book, you should also consider the small steps approach to your characters’ emotions. What is their emotional arc? If you’re starting with a character who is frail and anxious but who will eventually get over their fear and do something spectacular, you’ll want to show small glimpses of the person they are going to become, even from the beginning.

Likewise, if you have a character who grows from a cranky, mean-spirited curmudgeon to a giving sort, like Ebenezer Scrooge, consider giving the reader a glimpse of their inner thoughts to give them a way to connect, even as they dislike the character. Perhaps the main character is mean because they suffered a devastating loss and glimpses of the vulnerable person within comes through in their inner narrative. In this case, the characters' actions and thought might diverge, creating a type of dissonance that can keep the reader hanging on, wanting to see if the character’s true self will finally emerge.

Another way you can create an emotional connection for the reader is to give the character opposing actions. For example, the character may treat their employees with disrespect but send lots of money to an animal shelter while adopting and caring for yet another elderly dog. 

Be Intentional

Whatever way you choose to show your characters’ emotions, the important thing is to do so with intention. When you get to the revision stage, it can be helpful to create a checklist and parse your story into individual scenes.

Then ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is this character feeling?
  • How do their feelings change throughout the scene?
  • What are the physical details that convey these feelings?
  • How do characters’ thoughts convey how they feel and what they want?

The more you think about character feelings, the more natural it will become to express them. And allowing your characters to feel will help your readers become invested in your story in a meaningful way.

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